The Quest for a Floating Utopia
Can casting away from established society to inhabit sea-based colonies save us from the problems of modern life—or are we bound to repeat our mistakes?
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Here, it seems, is where utopia will begin: in a dusty, oversized garage. The place has a distinct chemical odor, unmistakably synthetic. It holds a few scattered shelves and tables, and, laid on its side, one barrel of resin—the source of the stink. Otherwise, this room in northern Panama, separated from the sea by a dirt parking lot and thin band of jungle, is empty, awaiting Chad Elwartowski’s dreams.
Elwartowski is dressed, per his trademark style, in a Hawaiian shirt, a look that seems to convert his every setting into cheerful paradise. Affable, clean-shaven, and still boyish at 47, he is one of the most devoted members of a strange global tribe: seasteaders, as they call themselves, believe the answer to some of life’s most pressing problems is to build new cities on the ocean. Global poverty, health crises, environmental challenges: these issues might all be fixed out there, along Earth’s last (mostly) unclaimed frontier. According to seasteading logic, the current crop of land-based governments is not serving the world—and by breaking away and starting afresh, we might build a better society.
Elwartowski, a US expat, calls himself the world’s first seasteader. He lived briefly in a pod off the coast of Thailand in 2019, though when he raised the ire of that country’s navy, he fled, becoming an international fugitive. Undeterred, he’s resettled in Panama, ready to try again. Ocean Builders, the company he helped found, plans to set 20 high-tech homes afloat here in an undeveloped bay.
I understand the appeal. I’ve always been drawn to wild, empty spaces, even more so in recent years, as tech companies have learned to track our every movement, as nationalist leaders have pushed democracies to the breaking point, as climate change has battered the globe—and the open ocean seems the wildest and emptiest place I might reasonably reach. But this instinct to flee to the wild worries me, too. It’s inspired by a love of nature, sure, but when I’m honest, I have to admit I’ve also bought into an old American frontier fairy tale—one that aggrandizes white American men like me. Like many fairy tales, the frontier story has a darker version, a too-true history of bloodshed, dispossession, greed. Can seasteading become a better form of pioneering, or is it bound to be a repeat of the same dark tale?
When Ocean Builders announced its project in December 2019, I contacted Elwartowski and explained my interest in the idea of the frontier. Now, after a couple of months of discussion by email and FaceTime, I’ve arrived to take the measure of this project. In the garage, Elwartowski points up, and I realize I’ll need to adjust my vision if I want to see through his eyes: the most important tool here is an unremarkable steel beam running along the ceiling. One day, it will hold a 3D printer, which will spit out the foam-core interior of the floating homes’ walls. The resin, meanwhile, will be used to coat their fiberglass exterior. The place reminds me of a backyard workshop, the standard domain of any American sitcom father—though this one yearns for a higher-tech future that for now, unfortunately, is out of reach. It’s late February 2020, and COVID-19 has delayed the equipment. Utopia is on hold.
The first attempts at open-ocean habitation were obvious larks. In 1964, Ernest Hemingway’s brother, Leicester, declared that a bamboo raft, little bigger than an oversized parking space, was a sovereign nation, New Atlantis. One record shows that the “country,” which floated off the coast of Jamaica, had six founding citizens: Hemingway’s family plus a public relations specialist and his assistant. When the raft sank in a storm a few years later, no one seemed to be on board. In 1967, an engineer built a platform the size of a basketball court off the coast of Italy, added a restaurant and souvenir shack, and called it the Republic of Rose Island. The Italian government deemed it a tourist trap designed to evade the local tax laws and destroyed the structure the next year. (This story was the inspiration for Rose Island, a recent Netflix comedy.)
A retired British army major named Roy Bates proved more successful. In late 1966, he climbed aboard an old antiaircraft platform 11 kilometers off the coast of England, declaring it the Principality of Sealand and his family its royalty. Despite efforts by the British government to reclaim its property—and a few attempted coups by rivals—the Bates family still claims the platform, which supports a 10-room compound. As of 2019, its sole occupant was a full-time hired guard. Bates’s son, Michael, now the reigning monarch, lives in the more convenient country of England, where he runs a fishing fleet.
There were also more earnestly political proposals for ocean colonies. Famed architects Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao collaborated on concepts for floating cities in the late 1960s—potential solutions, they thought, to the looming crises of overpopulation and resource depletion. The biggest draw for most would-be seasteaders, though, seemed to be freedom from government rules. The Republic of Minerva, for example—which consisted of nothing more than a flag and a pile of sand atop a South Pacific reef—was launched in 1972 by a Las Vegas millionaire. He wanted a nation free of “taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism,” he said. The nearby island nation of Tonga sent its army to clear away the sand within the year.
Ambitions grew over time. Results did not. In the early 1990s, a retired software engineer had an architect mock up SimCity-style renderings of a massive floating city. His plans were covered in a handful of magazines, but he couldn’t find enough potential citizens to fund its construction. In 1999, an entrepreneur named Lazarus Long solicited investments for yet another island nation, which he aimed to build on an unclaimed Caribbean shoal. The US Securities and Exchange Commission quickly ruled the project a scam. Long passed away in 2012, but the website for his Principality of New Utopia persists. Its concept art, depicting a ring of skyscrapers, looks cobbled together by a third-grader playing around in Photoshop; also featured are photos of Long gripping a bejeweled sword. “Soon there will be a meeting of all members of The Board of Governors at a time and place to be announced,” reads a notice.
In 2008, a nonprofit think tank called the Seasteading Institute launched to study and promote the ocean-living concept, recasting seasteading as something more world-transforming—and legitimate. The sales pitch has an intriguing idea at its heart: the country we’re born into determines much about our fate. What kinds of opportunities might arise if we start assembling whole new forms of government at sea?
The institute’s literature suggests that floating city states could mean new jobs that will attract the oppressed masses and may generate enough wealth to address global poverty. (The institute is especially bullish on the algae-farming industry.) Newly formed island nations could solve health crises, too: some could specialize in cheap medical treatments, keeping costs low by jettisoning regulatory red tape.
The challenge is finding a way to get building. On that front, Ocean Builders’ project in Panama marks a breakthrough, Joe Quirk, the institute’s president, tells me by email. Its homes—affordable and capable of floating in calm international waters—just may be the technology “that will lead to wider adoption.”
Chad Elwartowski is a believer: in seasteading, and in personal freedom. His beliefs began to clarify as a student at Michigan State University. As he prepared to vote in his first presidential election, he attended a talk by Bill Clinton, who was running for re-election. “He’s talking about investing in this, investing in that, investing in that,” Elwartowski remembers. “I knew investing was code word for ‘We’re going to be spending money on this.’” This was not his party, he decided. The country needed to be spending less.
He was more compelled by the ideals of Libertarianism, a political philosophy that favors individual autonomy over state control. In 2002, a few years after he had moved to the state of Georgia for a software engineering job, Elwartowski made a half-hearted run for Congress on the Libertarian Party ticket. He failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
On internet forums, Elwartowski bemoaned the failure of Libertarian politicians to gain traction. After a frustrating decade of trying to promote Libertarian politics within the American two-party system, he changed tactics. Rather than convince the unwilling, Elwartowski embraced a different American tradition: he’d leave the problems behind and strike out for new frontiers.
Costa Rica—a state with no army and that doesn’t tax foreign income—was one option. He was inspired, too, by the seasteading tradition. In his spare time, Elwartowski manufactured a few concrete spheres, which he considered strapping together to create an expandable island. (His main discovery: seven spheres would be enough to support his 90 kilograms, albeit awkwardly.) Whatever escape route he followed would require real money, he knew, so he began to take overseas software engineering contracts—including at a US Army base in Afghanistan for a year, which tripled his pay. He converted his salary to bitcoin, protecting himself against the potential collapse of the dollar, and set a plan: live like a monk, stockpile money, retire in five years.
In 2015, while working abroad, Elwartowski began to collaborate with four like-minded thinkers on what they called the Marinea Project. There was little new in the concept: just another description of a “village at sea,” billed unironically as “the pilot project for mankind’s colonization of the oceans.”
To raise US $15-million in capital, the founders sold $100 “SeaNotes,” which guaranteed future discounts at the island’s businesses and included a subscription to a monthly magazine. (I found the July 2016 issue of Ocean Living online: an 11-page PDF with a grainy photo of a beach on its cover. One of the articles suggests that overpopulation might soon lead to global war, and that the ocean offers the best place to survive; war or not, Marinea’s village would still “be a nice place to live, where freedom reigns.”) Only five people invested, Elwartowski says, and their money was returned.
Many legal experts believe there is no feasible mechanism by which a floating structure could become a recognized nation. Surabhi Ranganathan, a law professor at the University of Cambridge in England, explains the challenges: a country’s national waters extend 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) beyond its coastline. Then there’s another vast stretch where the nation controls the ocean’s economic resources. Beyond that boundary, 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from shore, you are indeed free from existing states, and anyone can build a structure. But construction will be incredibly difficult—there is nowhere to anchor, supplies are far away—and, besides, you will be treated as nothing more than a pirate, entirely unprotected by international treaties.
Much safer than abandoning statehood, then, is aligning yourself with a state whose laws you like. A vessel is like a floating slice of the nation whose flag it flies—which is why cruise ships and fishing vessels choose “flags of convenience,” registering in countries where lax regulations help maximize profits.
In 2017, the Seasteading Institute spun off a for-profit sister company called Blue Frontiers, which aimed to take this strategy one step further: it would build a floating island, under a hectare in size, in French Polynesia. The company’s founders wanted the island declared a “special economic zone”; in exchange for whatever jobs and other benefits the new island might bring to French Polynesia—the particulars were unspecified in the project’s prospectus—they hoped to negotiate a zero percent tax rate.
Soon after Blue Frontiers announced the project, Elwartowski retired from software engineering: he had saved a substantial amount of money, he says, and thanks to the rising price of bitcoin, he could afford to stop working. On a trip to Bangkok, Thailand, in 2017, he fell in love with his tour guide, Nadia Summergirl, a 33-year-old with a quick laugh and wide smile. (She chose the name for its easy pronunciation in English; her legal name is Supranee Thepdet.) The new couple relocated to French Polynesia, where Elwartowski positioned himself as a helpful seasteading superfan: he volunteered to moderate an online forum for the Seasteading Institute while he waited for Blue Frontiers to get off the ground. Elwartowski’s goal was simple: he wanted to be there. As soon as Blue Frontiers’ platform was adrift, he would be sleeping on top.
Within a year, though, locals turned against the project. According to one report, hundreds marched in protest, complaining that the city would float in the middle of an important fishing site. Blue Frontiers’ plans crumbled and Elwartowski and Summergirl headed back to Thailand.
Then, in early 2019, Elwartowski shocked the seasteading community: he had succeeded where Blue Frontiers—and so many others—had failed. He was out on the ocean. That February, he and Summergirl broadcast footage of their first night in a free-floating, six-meter-wide octagonal box surrounded by nothing but empty water, 26 kilometers off the coast of Phuket, Thailand. “May the seastead be a beacon to freedom lovers everywhere,” he said in a video posted to YouTube.
Elwartowski named the cabin XLII, pronounced “Ixly”—a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a computer determines that the number 42 is “the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” It contained little more than a bed and kitchen, plus a toilet that dumped waste into the sea.
The design was the brainchild of a German-born engineer named Rüdiger Koch. Koch had designed military weapons systems before shifting into a career as a cryptocurrency consultant, then finally settling into semiretirement in Thailand. Ever restless, he began to pursue plans to build a “launch loop”—a giant slingshot that was conceived by an electrical engineer in the 1980s as a low-cost mechanism for sending objects into space. (It’s become a favorite of sci-fi writers, but remains hypothetical.) Only the ocean provides sufficient space and suitable conditions for the lasso, which would span thousands of kilometers.
Koch and Elwartowski first connected on the Seasteading Institute’s forum. When they met in Thailand, the pair visited the patch of ocean where Koch planned to have workers assemble his loop. First, though, he would need to build a kind of watchtower where he could monitor the site. Elwartowski realized what Koch did not: the watchtower would be a seastead. And Elwartowski could be its house-sitter—thereby becoming the world’s first official seasteader. The two men launched Ocean Builders with a plan to build and sell 20 more pods.
When Koch and Elwartowski towed their prototype, XLII, into international waters—checking their location by GPS—they left it unflagged. Given his experience with Blue Frontiers, Elwartowski planned to keep a low profile until the concept was proven. He was, nonetheless, willing to collaborate with the Seasteading Institute. Quirk, the think tank’s president, visited and compiled a video series about the project.
Due to a construction snafu, the pod listed 10 degrees. On stormy nights, Elwartowski and Summergirl abandoned the tiny bedroom and slept in the kitchen, as close as possible to the central spar. A grocery run was a four-day affair, and since there was nowhere outside the seastead to park a boat, Koch had to pick them up. They sometimes stayed on shore instead, in an apartment in Phuket that Elwartowski had rented for Summergirl’s mother and 14-year-old son.
That’s where the couple was on April 12, 2019, when Summergirl received a message from a friend with a link to a news story. Though Elwartowski had made no claims about launching a new country in Quirk’s videos, the Thai navy had deemed XLII the beginning of a breakaway state and declared it a threat to national sovereignty. In Thailand, this is a capital crime; they faced life in prison, or even the death penalty. Elwartowski later tells me he wants to live in a world without nation-states, so had no interest in building his own. The extent of his self-governance on XLII, he likes to joke, was declaring a weekly Taco Tuesday.
But with the threat of the navy bearing down, Summergirl said a tearful goodbye to her family, claiming that she and Elwartowski were fleeing to Cambodia, in case authorities came to ask questions. Then the couple rushed to Phuket’s marina. They spent a sleepless night on Elwartowski’s sailboat, and at dawn joined Koch on his yacht to flee south.
The trio sailed nonstop for 24 hours, taking turns at the wheel. “Everybody’s freaked out,” Summergirl tells me later. She wasn’t sure whether to trust Koch, who had turned dark, vowing revenge on the navy. Elwartowski had to be the peacekeeper, though he was exhausted and paranoid. He kept mistaking the hum of the boat’s propeller for an incoming helicopter. His fear and frustration brought a line from Blade Runner to his head, repeating again and again: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” They planned to dock in Malaysia and then fly to some safe country. But when they reached a port, Malaysian customs officials turned them back for lack of a Thai exit stamp.
In the meantime, Thai authorities had towed XLII to shore. The fugitives mostly kept their phones off to avoid being tracked, but occasionally checked email and sent out pleas on social media. A representative of the US embassy in Bangkok told Elwartowski by email that the office could issue a new passport and provide a list of lawyers, but “could not interfere with Thai law enforcement issues.” Elwartowski says a contact in the military told the trio they were being pursued by a submarine. Because Thailand was run by military junta, they worried they would be killed on sight.
Elwartowski, Summergirl, and Koch contemplated escaping by helicopter with the help of an Israeli ex-military officer connected to a friend. Eventually, though, they settled on a more affordable strategy: travel to Singapore, which has no extradition agreement with Thailand. (The Principality of Sealand also offered amnesty via Instagram, but was too far away.) Elwartowski, once so eager for freedom, began to count down the meters separating him from territorial waters, where he knew he would be safe.
Eleven days after fleeing, the trio entered the port in Singapore, and armed guards boarded to search the boat, Elwartowski says. Fighter jets skimmed the air above—a show of force, perhaps, for the international fugitives, or maybe just coincidence. The ordeal ended in anticlimax: a customs agent stamped their passports. When Summergirl stepped ashore, she vomited, landsick.
A world away, beyond Elwartowski’s empty workshop in Panama, the Caribbean water is calm and strikingly clear. We motor out to the site where the homes will float, and Koch anchors. We’re hardly a kilometer offshore, tucked into an island cove where nothing human is visible. When we slip on dive masks and snorkels, we find the seabed below wrinkled with neon corals. The point of this part of my tour is obvious: Ocean Builders’ second take on seasteading will be quite luxurious.
But Panama’s appeal is not just its physical beauty. The country has long been admired by seasteaders for the few restrictions it imposes on ships. Almost anyone can register a boat online, without a prior connection to the country; offshore businesses pay no taxes and are protected by strong privacy laws. And, essential for Elwartowski and Summergirl, the country has no extradition agreement with Thailand and has flexible visa policies. The morning after they arrived in Singapore, the couple boarded a flight to Panama and eventually found their way to the beachside village of Puerto Lindo.
Koch stayed in Singapore a few weeks longer, attempting to negotiate with the Thai government, until he gave up and followed the others. Together, they relaunched Ocean Builders: Koch is the head of engineering; Elwartowski, the chief operating officer; Summergirl, the chief sustainability officer.
Ocean Builders has a new CEO, too, the former host of a TV series for hairstylists named Grant Romundt, whose first two qualifications on the official company bio are that he had “one of the most advanced mobile paperless offices in Canada in 1995” and once “lived in a tech ‘frat house’ in San Francisco with one of the six cofounders of PayPal.” Romundt has also designed educational apps for hairstylists, which provide enough passive income that he can live an itinerant existence. On his travels, he bumped into Quirk and then got plugged into seasteading. He eventually visited XLII. When the seasteaders fled Thailand, Romundt happened to be in Singapore, and he helped arrange their immigration paperwork, cementing a bond.
I met Romundt briefly in a shopping mall in Panama City—he was departing the country on the same day I arrived—and he explained his vision for the company. XLII was a squat little box with tiny windows; after his week living inside, Romundt wanted a more opulent choice. He envisioned massive windows; curving walls; chic, white minimalist furniture. These are all featured in the computer renderings on the company’s website: each pod, per the specs, will have three levels, adding up to more than 70 square meters of living space—about the size of an average New York City apartment, remodeled into a vessel that seems lifted out of Star Trek.
The pods, though, are only the first step in a grander vision. Ocean Builders plans to manufacture a second batch of homes, designed to handle bigger waves in deeper waters, and place them a few kilometers farther out into Panama’s territorial waters. Once this second community has been engineered, the final goal—open-ocean habitation, far out at sea—will be “just a matter of scale and economics,” the company’s website says.
Over a bowl of food-court poke, Romundt delivered a CliffsNotes edition of the Seasteading Institute’s manifestos. He explained that ocean dwellings could help produce sustainable food sources like algae, and that the technology developed for the pods might even “be a stepping stone for building in space.” The scope of this ambition struck me soon after the conversation, when I rejoined Elwartowski and Summergirl. We found ourselves lost in the wide, bright shopping-mall corridors, unsure of which exit would lead to the parking lot.
This sort of mismatch—grand aspirations set against mild humiliations—marks much of the weekend. On Saturday afternoon, as the Seasteading Institute pushes out the latest video in its YouTube series about Elwartowski, the internet cuts out, preventing the Ocean Builders team from answering questions via live chat. (Koch jokes that it must be the Thai navy attacking.) It winds up not mattering: none of the couple of dozen viewers asks a question. Earlier, outside their empty workshop, Koch and Elwartowski showed me a reduced-scale model of what they call a “spar.” It rested in the dirt and was serving as a drying rack: wet laundry hung over its beams. This, though, is the key piece of technology, the design element that keeps the homes floating. It’s borrowed from oil rigs, which in deep water are set atop steel cylinders weighted at the bottom to provide ballast. This provides stability even without an anchor.
The lack of polish is, in part, the team’s ethos. They see themselves as the good guys, David fighting against a global Goliath of governments. The company is self-funded—they’ve put in roughly a half-million dollars so far, mostly Koch’s—and while they hope to profit, money, they say, is secondary to their main goal: to supply a technology that might improve the conditions of humanity. At one point—as Koch fumbles with a new submarine drone, trying to figure out how to charge it—he admits that their long-term goal of building a city, even an airport, out on the ocean may be beyond their means. In the short term, he’s content pursuing what he calls “the frontier thing.”
The US frontier looms large in Libertarian thinking, and the name “seasteading” intends to evoke this historical concept. In a 1998 essay, Wayne Gramlich, a founder of the Seasteading Institute, noted that the frontier was settled not by a few well-financed parties, but by tens of thousands of smaller groups. These homesteaders were granted the legal right to a plot of land so long as they built a house and farmed for five years. As they converted the landscape, they laid the foundations for today’s continent-spanning United States. Gramlich wanted to find technologies that would allow individuals to similarly colonize the sea.
Quirk, too, discusses the US frontier in his book Seasteading; it was a place, he notes, where leaders liberally doled out rights as they competed for new citizens. Western states did away with voting-eligibility requirements based on land ownership or tax payment, Quirk says, and Wyoming offered women the right to vote before anywhere else in the United States—in part because the territory needed women to marry its abundant bachelors.
When the topic comes up during my time in Panama, Koch claims that frontier initiatives helped make the 19th century “probably the freest century we ever had in human history.” The frontier helped stall the rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism even in Europe, he thinks, because leaders did not want to lose commoners to a more appealing place across the sea. By building a new frontier on the ocean, we might just save the world again.
This is a narrow take on history. Slaves were still legal in the United States for much of the 19th century, and pioneers claimed their land with little regard for Indigenous peoples. (“The Native Americans might have a different opinion [of the frontier],” Koch concedes.) If the frontier era was a time of freedom, it was mostly freedom for white men. Even women did not receive universal suffrage until 1920, long after the frontier was declared officially closed.
The economic idea, too—that the frontier provided a mechanism for individual wealth-building that required little central government involvement—is a simplification. There was extensive state financing and planning: the US government paid other European empires to abandon their claims to the land; they funded surveyors who cataloged plots and soldiers who evicted the Indigenous inhabitants. And while homesteading put more than a million square kilometers of land into the hands of 400,000 families, more than twice as much land was bought up by well-heeled speculators—who tended to get the most fertile, well-irrigated expanses or the plots just along rail lines. The frontier, in essence, doubled as a massive government subsidy to the wealthy. And by the end of the 19th century, as this system helped drive more and more wealth into fewer people’s hands, the United States seethed with unrest.
Perhaps the real site of freedom was not the frontier but the empty lands beyond them, or sometimes hidden within them, places not yet cleared and tamed. As plantations and slavery spread across the Americas, runaways found shelter in tangled swamps, where they built camps and worked together to survive. Floating homes still serve a similar purpose today: lagoons, rivers, and coastal wetlands from China to Nigeria to Vietnam are home to jury-rigged slums and boat villages, usually inhabited by people welcomed nowhere else. “Nonstate spaces,” the anthropologist James C. Scott has called such landscapes. People choose them precisely because the terrain is difficult for the government to claim and simplify. No one gets rich there, but they survive.
After our snorkel dip, my tour—the “usual tour,” as Elwartowski calls it—concludes with a round of beers at an expat tiki bar tucked into an otherwise empty mangrove swamp just west of Puerto Lindo. Our conversation turns to the challenges and benefits of life at sea. COVID-19 has just been found outside China, and it’s clear that it may fit into both categories.
“We should be living out there and don’t have to worry,” Summergirl says later. For Ocean Builders, the illness is a selling point: they frame their homes as the best place to escape. For the moment, though, it’s also an impediment. Aside from the 3D printer, Elwartowski and Koch are waiting on a large batch of supplies that are stuck in China.
This is the irony of any frontier: it’s a space that is supposed to offer freedom from the oppressions of the existing world, but it depends on that world, too. Elwartowski envisions a future where his seasteaders grow their own food and use only recyclable materials, but in the meantime, chances are they’ll get their food and supplies from and cart their trash back to Panama. Foreigners will surely benefit from the relatively low cost of living here as they set out on their seasteading adventures.
On land, there are obvious signs of poverty in the region, at least outside the expat enclaves. Refuse is piled in culverts; police bearing machine guns sometimes stand guard outside grocery stores in the bigger cities. As Elwartowski drove me from the airport to Puerto Lindo, he joked that he’d have to build a projection screen in his pickup truck so that he could distract visitors from the scene. Compared with the US frontier, stolen from Indigenous peoples, the ocean has the virtue of being unoccupied, but the realities of elitism are harder to avoid.
At the bar and throughout the weekend, Koch and Elwartowski glower over their mistreatment by the world: the failure of the German and US embassies to assist during their plight in Thailand; the misunderstandings and misrepresentations by the media. They are especially incensed about a Financial Times article, published in 2019, that accused the company of building floating tax havens. Koch offers Ocean Builders itself as evidence that he is a willing taxpayer. Though, he does not pay taxes directly on the company, he admits; rather, a portion of the money he pays to his laborers is scooped up by the Panamanian government. “So, if I want to reduce my tax load, it’s very simple,” he says. “I don’t do all these things.” The logic is strained, but it is clear at least that these two have gone to too much trouble to be simply protecting their assets. There are simpler methods for that. These are true believers in the ocean dream.
What is that dream, though? It seems to begin, like so many proposed solutions, with the wealthy taking care of themselves. At what point will these first adopters decide that they want to invite global refugees into their communities? The steps between are unclear.
In the months since I left Panama, the team has been tinkering—testing new drones, running experiments on a deep-water spar, developing prototypes for delivery boats. Finally, in late July, the last pieces of manufacturing equipment arrived: a gantry crane and a generator. Now, construction is underway, and we will learn whether Ocean Builders’ unpolished facilities can materialize Romundt’s flashy design.
Gramlich, coiner of the “seasteading” term, dreamed of technologies cheap enough that individuals could be the ocean pioneers, rather than “large colonization corporations.” Blue Frontiers was very much the latter, making Ocean Builders something of a return to the original seasteading vision. At $195,000, its pods are roughly the price of an average single-family home in the United States. Keeping seasteading affordable to “everyone, not just the rich” has always been important to Elwartowski, he tells me. A fully tricked-out “sea pod,” as Ocean Builders calls their vessels—with high-end solar panels and smart-home technology—will cost much more, but Elwartowski imagines making these homes accessible by divvying them out as $10,000-per-week timeshares. Ocean Builders may also rent an early pod to visitors as a “SeaBnB,” as they call it, to give the curious a way to sample this life.
The sea pods will be registered in Panama, flying Panamanian flags. Quirk remains a supporter, and in his videos he uses the flight from Thailand to market the seasteading concept: he calls the drama a “morality play,” in which the Thai navy chose the role of cartoonish villain. Quirk says he is working with multiple countries to create laws that will make it easy to register and flag a seastead. Ranganathan, the legal expert, sees this as just an extension of the status quo. There is a cruise ship called The World that sells its 165 cabins as private residences and has been afloat since 2002, flying a Bahamian flag. “It’s a kind of holiday, right?” she says. “It’s the same as if you get a cabin and you go and live in the mountains. To some extent, yes, you’re free of the everyday constraints of living in a city. But it’s not that you’ve accomplished some kind of paradigm shift.”
That fact was underscored in late October when Ocean Builders announced it had acquired a cruise ship (at a cut-rate price, thanks to the COVID-19–related decline in travel). The team planned to anchor the boat off Panama and use some cabins as quarters for the laborers building their homes. They’d sell the rest as condos: the Crypto Cruise Ship, they called it, where bitcoin would be the currency of choice. “We want seasteaders filling as many roles as possible on the cruise ship. From the ship officers to the business owners,” Elwartowski said in a Seasteading Institute press release. He tells me that this was another effort to make seasteading financially accessible; cabins would cost just $25,000. Nonetheless, demand proved weak: after only 10 rooms sold during a November auction, Ocean Builders decided to sell the ship for scrap.
It seems the philosophy of seasteading—the philosophy of the frontier—presumes that the answer to all problems is to strike out alone. Meanwhile, other organizations are using international laws to innovate and collaborate on the ocean in ways that arguably have more direct impact on society. Women on Waves, for example, provides abortions to women in countries with restrictive reproductive laws. Its boat carries women 20 kilometers offshore, where, under the boat’s Dutch flag, abortion becomes legal. Ranganathan points out that some environmentalists want to have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch recognized as a floating island nation—an effort not to strip away regulation, but instead to superpower it. If the patch were granted nationhood, the international community would be obliged to participate in cleanup efforts. A “politics of responsibility,” Ranganathan calls such efforts: they are focused not on the rights of individuals, but instead on what responsibility we have to other human beings, even nonhuman entities.
Throughout the pandemic, Ocean Builders demonstrated care on social media. Photos and videos show the team providing food to needy Panamanians—hundreds of people fed, according to Elwartowski. But on bitcoin forums, Elwartowski writes troubling—if sometimes puzzling—statements about communism taking over the United States and his plans to attain personal power under that new political reality. “The most selfish individualistic people in the world are those at the top of [communist] power structures and I plan on taking my slice of individual liberty that only a tyrannical regime can provide,” he wrote, later referencing Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler as powerful individualists.
In Panama, Elwartowski tells me the philosophy he adheres to now is voluntarism: no one should be forced to do anything against their will. I ask what responsibility we have—especially as white American men—for the inequitable spread of power and money in the world. He says that as an individual, he is “in control of my own actions, my own thoughts. I am not responsible for the actions of other people, including my parents, my ancestors, anybody else.” But there is nothing wrong with inheriting wealth or privilege: it is handed down voluntarily, he says.
On Sunday, my last night in town, the entire team—along with the owner of a bitcoin-themed cafe in Cambodia and a South African engineer, part of a revolving guest list of experts that Ocean Builders invites to Panama to provide technical advice—assembles on Elwartowski’s patio for piles of pork chops and chicken wings. It’s a lovely night: cool, slightly breezy, with the sound of waves breaking just feet away. As the margaritas flow, the conversation makes a sometimes uncomfortable and contentious turn into issues of race, gender, and poverty.
As he drives me to the airport the next morning, Elwartowski tells me this kind of debate is exactly what he envisions happening on a future colony of sea pods: free-thinking people hashing out their philosophies. To me, though, our little circle—everyone overfed and tipsy, so easily certain of our rightness while around us the world struggles—feels less like utopia than a scaled-down reprint of the world’s core problems. A SeaBnB floating above a blue-green lagoon seems like a pleasant-enough vacation. To fix the world, though, may require more humility and sacrifice.